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AFN Chief will have to 'get ugly' with feds [editorial]


Windspeaker Staff







The Stephen Harper Conservative majority government has picked up a head of steam with the passage of its omnibus budget bill C-38, and the question now is: How do you stop a train?

That will be the big overarching question in the minds of voters when they mark their ballots at this month’s Assembly of First Nations election for national chief. It has to be, because the Harper government is content to run over Canadians’ best interests, so we have to know the interests of First Nations from coast to coast won’t carry much sway unless the chiefs choose wisely.

On July 18, 600-plus chiefs will have their chance to determine the relationship they will have with this government and Canadians for the next three years. Who is going to speak for them on the federal stage, and what will be the tone of that national conversation?

This election for national chief is proving to be an interesting one. First Nations people can boast a great richness in the quality of these– let’s count ‘em–eight candidates. Shawn Atleo, Bill Erasmus, Ellen Gabriel, Joan Jack, Diane Kelly, Terrance Nelson, Pam Palmater, and George Stanley, we commend your courage to allow your name to stand, and for the commitment it takes to take part in an election of this high profile, whatever the results.

We are fully enjoying the discussion around the national family dinner table about your ideas and perspectives. It is a discussion that is energized, intelligent, for the most part, and helpful to the evolution of the organization.

For one thing, if the participation of grassroots activists Ellen Gabriel and Pam Palmater is any indication, we can foresee more pressure brought to bear on the AFN to become more than just a space for the voices of chiefs to be heard. Evolve, or become irrelevant, we say, and so say the grassroots people who are urging these “anti-establishment” candidates on.

The debate and discussion that will take place over the coming weeks will be of the highest order, we anticipate, and the windows and doors that are going to be blown open at the AFN are going to provide for a real airing out of cobwebs and complacency.

And it would not be very smart for comfortable chiefs to dismiss the fact that there are four very qualified women attempting a run at the top job. The issues of women should become very important to the AFN now, and in the future. If not, there will be disappointment, we can tell you.

Now, in case you’re wondering, we’re not predicting any wholesale change when the voting is done on July 18. It is not yet clear if anyone but incumbent Shawn Atleo has the stuff to pull 60 per cent of 600-plus voting chiefs and proxies.

But we can’t ignore that polarizing discussion around the direction of the AFN and the accusation leveled that Atleo has steered the organization too close to the government over the last three years, and is too affable in his dealing with these Conservatives.

Funny. It’s the same complaint lobbed at the former national chief Phil Fontaine with the Liberals. Still, it will be interesting to see if this alleged coziness will dog Atleo through the next few weeks and have an impact on election day.

It will all come down to the differing perspectives about what the AFN is supposed to be and do. The stakes are high. The person chosen to lead this organization is in for three years of a very difficult time. Every chief in attendance on election day will know the difficulty of being at any table with this government these days; deaf, dumb and blind the Conservatives are to all but their own very specific agenda.

There are very real and practical consequences if the chiefs get this wrong. We will be watching for more than personalities in this election process. It will take more than what the candidates have done in the past to impress the voters. It will require a well thought out plan of action going forward, and a solid vision of how the AFN will relate to a very hard partner in Canada’s government.


Full coverage of all the issues and the candidates in our AFN Elections Blog